Sunday, April 17, 2016

Eye in the Sky


A joint UK/US intelligence operation headed by Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is surveilling a safe house in Nairobi where high-ranking members of a terrorist cell – including radicalised nationals from both countries – are meeting. A remote control drone disguised as a bird provides insufficient coverage, so Kenyan agent and man-on-the-ground Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) is dispatched to get as close to the property as possible, where – under the noses of militia with short-tempers and itchy trigger-fingers – he deploys an even smaller drone, this one resembling an insect, and manoeuvres it into the house. Intel confirms the presence, in particular, of radicalised UK terror suspect Susan Danford (Lex King), whom Powell has been tracking for over half a decade. In Whitehall, Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), Powell’s superior, talks Members of Parliament Brian Woodale (Jeremy Northam) and Angela Northman (Monica Dolan) and Attorney General George Matherson (Richard McCabe) through the operation in real-time. The intended outcome is the apprehension of Danford.

Then the perameters change. Footage of suicide bombers assembling explosive vests are transmitted from the house and Powell seeks Benson’s authorisation to use deadly force. Benson asks for ministerial approval. American drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and observer Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) stand-by to deploy a missile from their aptly-named Reaper drone. When Gershon notices a young girl, Alia (Aisha Takow), selling bread at a stall close to the safe house, Watts questions Powell’s now-approved executive order. What follows is a succession of political wrangling as everyone from Woodale to the Foreign Secretary (Iain Glen) try to disengage themselves from involvement and/or responsibility. Meanwhile, US politicos – including White House advisor Jillian Goldman (Laila Roberts) and the Secretary of State (Michael O’Keefe) – advocate an expedient pro-bombing outcome.

The poster for ‘Eye in the Sky’ trumpets an appreciative quote from The Times: “a tense, morally complex and extremely prescient thriller”. Tense, yes – Gavin Hood’s direction is unobtrusive and economical, establishing four or five key locations and a hierarchy of tense interrelationships, and never losing sight of any single character’s part in the unfolding drama. Prescient, yes – this is the kind of stuff that earns that hoary old “ripped from the headlines” epithet (albeit from the headlines of The Daily Mail: everyone in the safehouse, regardless of nationality, is a terrorist because of religion; Danford’s backstory is basically “she became radicalised after hanging around mosques”. ‘Eye in the Sky’ is horribly racist and Islamphobic.)

But morally complex? Don’t make me fucking laugh. The script presents those inside the safe house as an immediate and credible threat and throws in a specious line about an inability to engage them on the ground; therefore the drone strike is a foregone conclusion. People are shown passing by or standing guard outside the safe house throughout the film; they will almost certainly be killed or badly injured – but this, too, is a foregone conclusion and the script (by Guy Hibbert) clearly doesn’t care about them. The morality of the act itself is never debated – drones find bad people so they can be killed and this is a good thing is the intellectual starting point from which the film proceeds – and what we’re left with is a bit of theorising on acceptable levels of collateral damage and how the death or serious injury of a child might be used by either side in terms of PR/propaganda.

Scenes of parliamentary pass-the-parcel play out like an episode of ‘Yes, Minister’ without the jokes, while the will-Alia-sell-all-the-bread? moments come off like a badly done Hitchcock homage; they serve to weaken any serious considerations the film might have traded in. Ditto the obvious attempts at humour, such as Benson’s fish-out-of-water mission to buy a present for his daughter or the Foreign Secretary taking urgent calls while entrenched on the toilet with food poisoning – perhaps these scenes were intended as a counterbalance to all the serious business, but they just come off as risible.

Sad to note, too, that the performances are generally lacklustre. Rickman’s is phoned in and it’s a genuine tragedy that ‘Eye in the Sky’ is his swansong. Dolan seems to think she’s still in character from ‘Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa’. Glen seems like he popped in between takes on ‘Game of Thrones’ and had his mind on other things. Mirren is good, but somewhat long in the tooth to be a serving member of the armed forces. Paul and Fox play well off each other, small glances between them communicating a world of doubt while they still function within the chain of command. Abdi does the best work of the ensemble, in no small part due to the fact that his is the only character who actually has an emotional investment, by dint of proximity, in Alia’s fate. Had the film played out entirely from his perspective in the danger zone, rather than on wall mounted screens and laptops viewed by overpaid right-wingers in the safety of their offices, it could have been the ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ of the post-9/11 age. As it is, it’s a sixth form debate wrapped around a shiny, phallic bit of drone porn.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Midnight Special


All ‘Midnight Special’ had to do to earn itself a pass from The Agitation of the Mind was simply be good. That might sound like a fatuous statement, but believe me ‘Midnight Special’ could easily have been a disaster. Given the current climate of mainstream American cinema, it would have been all too easy for ‘Midnight Special’ to be terrible. Consider this synopsis: a young boy exhibiting otherworldly powers is hunted by the government (who want to weaponise him) and a religious cult (who see him as a shortcut to the rapture); his estranged parents and a small coterie of sympathisers set out on a desperate odyssey to protect him. Now consider the material in the hands of Michael Bay: flashy effects work and soulless violence. Or Neill Blomkamp: grimy effects work and nihilistic violence. Or J.J. Abrams: lens-flare-saturated effects work and sub-Spielberg mawkishness.

Fortunately, ‘Midnight Special’ was written and directed by Jeff Nichols, the man behind 2012’s sublime rites-of-passage genre ‘Mud’, and he brings to the table every plus point of that film: the confidence to foreground character and allow a slow-burn atmosphere to develop in its own good time; an acute sense of place and the ability to demonstrate in visual terms how character and location interact; a nuanced understanding of the fragility of innocence and the terrible things that lurk behind the wonders of an unexplored environment; the complex dynamics of familial relationships; a heartfelt empathy with outsiders; and a facility, as director, to elicit pitch-perfect performances, particularly from younger cast members. 

Subject of which, step forward Jaeden Lieberher as Alton Meyer, the young lad at the heart of the story. He gives a performance far beyond his years, utterly convincing through every stage of Alton’s character arc. I could say more, but I want to keep this review devoid of spoilers. ‘Midnight Special’ hasn’t been heavily trailered or advertised and in one respect this is a good thing as it lets the audience discover the film on its own terms, but in another is unfortunate as it will, in all likelihood, come and go from multiplex screens within only a week or two, a small but brilliant film unceremoniously cleared out to free up as many screens as possible for ‘Captain America: Civil War’. Which is why I urge anyone reading these pages to catch ‘Midnight Special’ immediately. Don’t let the opportunity to see it on the big screen slip through your fingers. I am convinced that this film is destined for cult classic – if not outright modern classic – status.

Nichols’ script fleet-footedly dodges every possible cliché or hint of melodrama; what could have been an unholy conflation of ‘Firestarter’, ‘Super 8’ and ‘Red State’ emerges as an uncompromised artistic statement. The narrative begins in media res; a steady accretion of detail fills in backstory, interrelationships and the full context of what’s at stake. Nichols structures much of the first half as a road movie/on-the-run thriller. But without ever sacrificing the finer nuances of his story for the sake of obvious thrilleramics. Which isn’t to say he can’t stage a shockingly sudden shoot-out or a gripping car chase when the moment requires it. Another analogue with ‘Mud’: that film’s final act where the ‘Stand By Me’-style poignancy yields to a scene of joltingly edited bit of gunplay that gets its Peckinpah funk on.

The twin antagonists of ‘Midnight Special’ – state and religion – are obvious targets, but Nichols refuses to trivialise them or score cheap points. The religious cult are treated as stoic types who are convinced they are right, but function as a community in their own right. They aren’t slavering fanatics, demented extremists or lascivious hypocrites; even when they stage their last gasp attempt at kidnapping Alton, force is used sparingly and human doubts are all to evident behind their desperate actions. Likewise, the government/military types emerge as people doing a job instead of jargon-grunting hard-asses.

Every aspect of ‘Midnight Special’ – right up to its gorgeously realised final reel flight of fantasy (a phrase I use as recommendation not pejorative) – is grounded in reality. Its vision of Americana comprises motels, gas stations, small towns and vast swathes of open country. The openness of its road movie elements is in constant counterpoint to the intimacy of its character dynamics and the tense inevitability of what its main characters are fleeing from.

Visually, the film is precise, focused and incredibly well thought-out (its palette of nocturnal landscapes and low-lit interiors gradually cedes – in a way that’s inextricably bound up with the narrative – to the ethereal glow of the magic hour and finally the stark absolute of daylight. Adam Stone’s cinematography is something I want to write a love-letter to. Ditto David Wingo’s score. Acting-wise, I’ve already hailed Lieberher; Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Sam Shepherd and Adam Driver – all damn good actors – deliver effectively restrained performances. Kirsten Dunst is as good as I’ve ever seen her: a late-in-the-game scenes requires her to go from buttoned-down pragmatism to awestruck; and with one piercing look that combines woundedness, stupefaction and something of the transcendental, she pulls off a moment of cinematic alchemy.

In fact, you can apply that description to Nichols as regards his achievement with the film entire. ‘Midnight Special’ is a riveting, enigmatic, thought-provoking and ultimately beautiful work of cinema. It may well be the best American film of the year.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice


‘Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice’ is no classic. Let’s be completely honest about that. It’s as flawed as ‘Man of Steel’ was. Some of it works and some of it doesn’t. The things that don’t work – in particular matters pertaining to Lex Luthor – are hugely awful. The things that do work – in particular matters pertaining to Diana Prince – are as iconic as any fanboy could wish for. The film is a mishmash, and narratively wonky. But does it deserve the outpouring of hatred that the critics have almost unanimously delivered? In my humble opinion, no.

Which isn’t to say that, having emerged from the cinema with a general feeling of I enjoyed that more than I thought I would, I’m going to fashion this review into not just an apologia for ‘B vs S’, but reappraise it as a misunderstood classic of the genre. No, sir. It would be remiss of any reviewer to gloss over the film’s problems, just as it’s lazy of the majority of them to join in the hurling of brickbats.

In the interests of objectivity and balance, let’s acknowledge the faults. First and foremost, the characterisation of Lex Luthor is terrible, partly because Jesse Eisenberg is miscast but mostly because the script (a) gives him some of the most thankless dialogue any actor could find himself saddled with, and – more problematically – (b) fails in establishing any credible motivation for his increasing sociopathic behaviour. And, no, his oft-repeated variations on a theme of man’s victory over God doesn’t really cut it since there’s no moment in his character arc that leads him to this mindset. In fact, he doesn’t even have a character arc. It’s as if the first script conference settled on Lex Luthor as villain based on the rationale that everyone knows he’s the villain anyway so let’s just wheel him onstage and give him villainous things to do and we won’t need to bother with any of that tedious exposition business.

Likewise, the titular Batman/Superman conflict is predicated on very little. Sure, there’s the effective opening sequence where the finale of ‘Man of Steel’ is restaged from Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck)’s perspective as he navigates rubble-strewn and dust-choked streets in an attempt to facilitate his employees’ evacuation while Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod twat each other in an orgy of city-wide destruction and wait a fucking minute, since when exactly was Wayne Industries based in Metropolis? So, yeah, the ultimate superhero anti-hero, a man who was wreaked his fair share of havoc in order to take down bad guys, suddenly goes all antagonistic on Superman because he wreaked havoc in order to take down a bad guy. 

Meanwhile, Clark Kent pursues a media campaign against Batman for little other reason that it gets him off the sports desk. Though why he spends his time at the office getting all moody and embittered when he’s shacked up with the uber-foxy Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is anybody’s guess. Ditto why Lois continually puts her life in danger chasing down stories when she’s just as loved-up herself.

Finally: the flashbacks/dream sequences. They’re piss-poor, on both a conceptual and aesthetic level. Really, really piss-poor.

And if you took ‘B vs S’ on the 500 words above, the critical kicking would be easy to understand; in fact, you’d probably feel like grabbing a burning touch and allaying yourself with the village lynch-mob. But said course of behaviour would leave one blind to the pleasures of the film. To whit:

Ben Affleck as Batman. I’ll cop a guilty plea, right here and right now, to face-palming and groaning when I heard the news of Affleck’s casting. And by the same chalk I’ll hold my hands up and admit that I was wrong. Trudging through the metaphorical treacle of a script that can’t even establish a fundamentally plausible motivation for his character, Affleck nonetheless knocks it out of the park in his portrayal of a Batman who is middle-aged, world-weary and descending into an embittered psychosis. This is a not just a Batman who, prior to the titular stand-off, has to force himself through a masochistic training regime and build an armoured suit that it’s effortful even to walk in (in fact, there’s something about seeing the un-suited-up Bruce Wayne pounding at a truck tyre with a sledgehammer that presents an anti-iconography: the training montage actually strips a superhero down to a new personal low), but Affleck is just as acute in his characterisation of Bruce Wayne, showing a jaded multi-millionaire going through the motions of what society expects of him; even the playboy lifestyle and womanising seems forced, to the point where Alfred sneers at him that there’s little hope for a next generation. 

Subject of whom: Jeremy motherfuckin’ Irons. Hot on the heels of his fantastic turn in ‘High-Rise’, he reinvents Alfred to his own specifications within seconds of appearing onscreen. Retaining the Jeeves-like pragmatism of the character’s previous incarnations, Irons adds a level of barbed irascibility and the result is magnificent. In fact, I’d give Irons the Agitation of the Mind “man of the match” award if it weren’t for …

… Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman. Introduced in oblique fashion, with much of her narrative arc and motivation remaining enigmatic for most of the running time, Gadot isn’t given much to do but look slinky and seductive as Prince and wield a sword in menacing fashion as Wonder Woman. Given the script’s total inability to treat a female character as anything other than a plot device, Gadot could easily have come adrift in the melee, her character mere eye-candy in the CGI-driven morass of the final act. But, by God, a former model who I wouldn’t have previously credited as having any claim to cinematic iconography doesn’t just make something out of nothing, she creates bona fide moments of mainstream cool.

Other plus points: Snyder’s commitment to a dark vision of the material – slammed by the critics for humourlessness – yields some genuinely striking moments: the film begins and ends with funerals (Snyder shoots funerals with the same quasi-pornographic delight that Argento at his best reserved for death scenes); Wayne’s contact with a Russian mobster takes place at a grungily ugly bare-knuckle boxing competition; Superman’s coercion into appearing at a congressional hearing is the culmination of a subplot about political showboating/careerism and is full-stopped by a hugely cynical punchline almost calculated to plug into contemporary America’s terrorism fear-factor. Snyder plays it equally dark and cynical in terms of classical allusions, throwing in Icarus, Parsifal and a painting in Luthor’s apartment that’s basically a combination of Gustav Dore and William Blake; there’s even a dream/hallucination sequence where Kevin Costner reappears as Clark Kent’s mortal step-father, staged in such a manner that short of inserting a title card reading “and my father on that sad height” the nod to Dylan Thomas couldn’t be more explicit.

And this is perhaps what ‘B vs S’ offers as an apologia for itself even in the face of its harshest critics. In an era where superhero movies – specifically those of the Marvel ilk – have come to define mainstream cinemagoing, Iron Man and Captain America might flirt around the edges of prescient storylines about the corrupting influence of power and the fear of the unknown, but you’re highly unlikely to stumble across a classical allusion or a debate on the very redundancy of heroism; whereas Snyder, carrying on the dialogue he established in ‘Man of Steel’, batters furiously and incessantly away at the very concept of the genre even as he embraces its most fetishistic excesses.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Man of Steel


Right then, I’ve steeled myself up (pardon the pun) and I’m going to see ‘Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice’ on the big screen later this week. There’s a certain car-crash mentality to this decision. I can’t even call it morbid curiosity, because curiosity suggests an open-mindedness, a spirit of inquiry rather a morbid confirmation of what one knew already. Yes, I know ‘BvS: DoJ’ is going to be downright flawed at best and an abject piece of shit at worst. But after a fortnight of reading reviews brimming with bilious hatred, I need to see it for myself. If only to experience the zeitgeist. The last time the collective critical consensus went against a major tentpole release – Gore Verbinski’s ‘The Lone Ranger’ – I opted out of seeing it theatrically. Two years later, I caught in on DVD and my immediate opinion was “yeah, whatever, not great, not terrible, nice train chase”; then, with a jolt of realisation and complete bewilderment, “wait a minute, the critics hated on it that much?”

So I’m going to tootle along to my local multiplex, lay my money down, invest two and a half hours of my life (three if you count the wanky ads for piss-weak foreign lager and aspirational lifestyle bollocks), and revel in the mangled wreckage and streaks of blood on the side of the highway. We’re talking schadefreude, folks, and you don’t need to speak German to dig it. Because tonight, thank God, it’s Zack Snyder and not me. 

But before I go and see ‘BvS: DoJ’ and before I hammer out my review of it in a Lagavulin induced haze, there is the necessary context of ‘Man of Steel’. So here goes.

Cards on the table: I liked Richard Donner’s ‘Superman’ with Christopher Reeve. The sequels were shabby, and got worse as the franchise lumbered on. Bryan Singer’s ‘Superman Returns’ was one of the dullest big-budget studio films I’ve ever seen, and I’m including the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ sequels in that, so nyah-nyah-naa-nyah-nyah. Innit?

Cards on the table part two: I’m not that keen on Zack Snyder. His ‘Dawn of the Dead’ remake was better than it had any right to be, but nothing else in his filmography has lived up to its promise. ‘Sucker Punch’ came closest, and at least had the feel of a work by an auteur, but I still came away from it with a feeling of “meh”.

So I didn’t have much hope for ‘Man of Steel’. And maybe that negative expectation worked in its favour when I finally got round to seeing it. There was the opening sequence with Russell Crowe as Superman’s dad and a nerdishly unholy dose of sci-fi porn – glitzy, borderline incoherent and thunderously unsubtle … but it did the job. There was the montage of Superman-in-waiting, from his childhood as stepson to a couple of all-American farmers (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), to his troubled, peripatetic twenties – a welter of swaying cornfields, tornadoes, schoolkids in peril and oil rig fires … bludgeoningly obvious stuff, but all in context and effective enough. And. Then. Snyder. Went. Fucking. Apeshit. 

No stand-in for tarnished post-Nixon patriotism à la Donner’s classic; no heavy-handed Christ parable à la Singer’s snore-fest (although Snyder sneaks the odd visual metaphor for crucifixion). Nope: what we have in ‘Man of Steel’ is a superhero for a jaded, paranoid and politically compromised age where the entertainment value of superheroes is in stark contrast to the swathes of destruction they’d cause if you rooted them in an even remotely realistic scenario. This is the single greatest achievement of ‘Man of Steel’ and Snyder was given a kicking for it.

Hold that thought while we consider a heavily adumbrated précis of the film’s narrative: the infant Kal-El escapes Krypton in the midst of a putsch orchestrated by General Zod (Michael Shannon); he struggles to be accepted on Earth; the moment he discovers his lineage and truly embraces his powers as a force for good, Zod turns up looking for him and the US military first arrest and then cravenly hand him over to Zod in an attempt to avoid an intergalactic ass-whupping. When it becomes obvious that Zod is going to royally fuck over the planet and use its ruins as the basis of a new Krypton, Superman (Henry Cavill) saves mankind anyway because … well, actually, this is where the film loses me. Maybe because his step-parents were nice. Maybe because he quite fancies investigative reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Maybe because he just wants to prove everyone wrong.

Got that? America – and by extension the world – doesn’t give a flying one about Superman. Scenes of a handcuffed Superman and a heavily armed US force handing him over to Zod constitute the bitterest comment on extraordinary rendition that I’ve seen in any mainstream American film, let alone a superhero flick. Snyder ramps up the deconstructive cynicism with Superman’s climactic smackdown with Zod and his forces. Whereas Marvel have given us epic city-wide battles, portals between worlds and all manner of futuristic technology with barely a civilian casualty, ‘Man of Steel’ stages its almost interminably wearying slugfest in a recognisable environment where a downtrodden populace are going through the motions of working, travelling and making ends meet. The carnage that ensues, excessive and CGI-driven though it is, takes on a weight and a brutish aftermath that the Marvel films gloss over. Whether it was intended or not, Snyder and his creative team seem to be holding up a mirror to the audience’s demands for violence and destruction and asking them to judge their own slavering reflections. Michael Powell pulled this stunt with ‘Peeping Tom’ back in 1959 and it all but ended his career. Snyder isn’t exactly standing in line at the labour exchange right now, but he certainly caught hell for it.

‘Man of Steel’ is a flawed but interesting film. Big concepts bubble beneath its surface, but are subjugated in favour of iconography – grim and bloody iconography but iconography nonetheless. Potentially fascinating characters are given glimpses of an interesting narrative arc then unapologetically sidelined, with Adams and Laurence Fishburne (as Lois’s hard-ass editor) coming off the worst in this respect). And it’s all so grungily self-important. But it strives to locate the concept of the superhero in a world that’s so morally, politically and socially compromised that even the offer of unconditional heroism is met with cowardice, fear and an executive order as regards the use of weapons – and the conclusion it arrives at is dark. The original big-screen iteration of Superman was the hero America needed at the time; the one in ‘Man of Steel’ ends up as compromised as the society he protects.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

High-Rise


How often have you come across this staple of lazy film criticism: “the city/vehicle/otherwise-inanimate-object [delete as applicable] is a character in its own right”?

Far too often, right? And it constitutes really bad reviewing, right? 

Good. Glad we got that out of the way. In Ben Wheatley’s ‘High-Rise’, adapted by Amy Jump from J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel, the apartment block is a character in its own right.

‘High-Rise’ is a masterpiece of set design with a punctured bile duct rather than a beating heart driving the two-hour act of aesthetic implosion that constitutes its narrative. Early scenes have Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) prowling the lobby while his boxed-up possessions are crated in. Laing rocks a conservative suit and a grey tie that seem utterly in tune with the soulless brutalism of the high-rise block. The camera prowls just as elegantly, as if DoP Laurie Rose were out to redefine the concept of architecture porn. Already, though, imperfections lurk behind the high-rise’s buttoned-down façade: a single bleb of paint spoiling an otherwise perfectly glossed wall; a couple of angles out of true; a touch of rust on the hob in Laing’s minimalist kitchen. By the halfway point, the mask has slipped entirely and the societal ugliness inherent in the level-based class system has manifested as corridors full of rubbish bags, garbage chutes clogged with filth, lights and elevators failing, smashed glass, piles of rubble, public copulation and acts of what Alex the Droog would refer to as “the old ultraviolence”. The poster for ‘High-Rise’ explicitly homages ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and there’s more than a hint of Kubrick at his most coldly cynical in Wheatley’s mise en scene (not to mention some deliberate nods towards the Starliner Tower in David Cronenberg’s ‘Shivers’).

Or to put it another way, ‘High-Rise’ starts as architecture porn only to veer off suddenly and shockingly into the realms of architecture snuff. Wheatley keeps things slow-burn for the first third, assiduously mapping out the power structure and introducing Laing to a roster of oddball residents, from belligerent TV documentary-maker Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his heavily pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) – lower level – to the flirtatious and socially mobile Charlotte (Sienna Miller) and her nerdy polymath son Toby (Louis Suc) – mid level – all the way up to the penthouse suite and the building’s architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) and his brittle trophy wife Ann (Keeley Hawes). The metaphor for British society is obvious from the outset and Wheatley adds a good 20 or 30 minutes to the running time in hammering the point, sometimes in wincingly laborious fashion. His talent for visual storytelling is downright precocious, so it’s a shame that the pace is slowed and the dark drama dissipated by a cluster of scenes in which characters sit around and spout thuddingly literal dialogue. 90 minutes was all ‘High-Rise’ needed to be.

Having said that, the film gets more right than it does wrong. The period detail and evocation of the 1970s is spot on. Clint Mansell’s score is a thing of beauty and I’ll be adding the soundtrack to my collection ASAP. The cast are very good, with Hiddleston on excellent form, Miller giving a performance that’s worlds beyond the set-dressing she’s usually called on provide, Hawes taking material that could have been clichéd and turning Ann into a nuanced and almost tragic character, and Evans – who I liked in ‘No One Lives’ and thought was dreadful in ‘The Raven’ – snatching the Man of the Match award with a swaggering, visceral turn that put me in mind of Oliver Reed at his fiery best. Jump – for all that her script drifts intermittently into wordiness – "gets" Ballard in a way no-one has apart from Cronenberg with ‘Crash’.

Wheatley – as you’d expect of the man who directed the genuinely disturbing ‘Kill List’ and the genuinely hallucinatory ‘A Field in England’ – isn’t afraid to go full on in depicting the total breakdown of social order. Minor unfairnesses, verbal standoffs and a laddish invasion of a posh soiree so the children of the tower block can have a pool party soon escalate into orgiastic destruction and rampant self-interest. For all that Wilder has a poster of Che Guevara in his apartment, you can’t even call it class warfare. The only solidarity seems to be among the women, either the blue-bloods who rally around Ann or the much put-upon wives with whom Helen socialises. Charlotte, meanwhile, occupies the middle ground in every sense of the expression and the truth about her loyalties and her son’s parentage don’t emerge until late in the game.

If there are agents for the building’s sudden collapse into chaos, they are Royal’s thuggish aide/bouncer Simmons (Dan Renton Skinner) – whose repeated line “you won’t be needing that” becomes increasingly prescient, – and the reactionary Wilder, who sees the high-rise’s hierarchy as documentary gold for his next project. Laing, meanwhile, drifts through the film as often little more than an observer. For a while he seems like the untainted resident whose moral rectitude might be the yardstick for the audience’s response to the ever-more frenzied onscreen acts. Or maybe not: with blank indifference, he nudges an oikish colleague towards an act of suicide; parlays with Royal to the point of toadying; and goes native as completely as anyone else. The difference is that while Wilder or Simmons’s enthrallment to the building triggers machismo impulses, Laing’s response is placid, almost zen-like. In the midst of the basest displays of (in)human behaviour, Laing begins to feel at home. It says something that while everyone else is happily doling out beatings, torching vehicles in the car park or engaging in joyless group sex, the only real altercation Laing has is with someone who tries to steal from him a tin of grey paint.

The film is ultimately about what society tries to make of us, what we want to make of ourselves, the psychological impulses that drive us (particularly the self-destructive ones that usually end up in the driving seat) and the dangers that occur when mindscape and landscape overlap. The nastiest concept the film serves up – and it’s perhaps the only theme that isn’t bludgeoned by the script into literalism – is that fact that any of the residents could leave at any time. They’re not trapped in or by the building; they just need it. The building is the necessary framework wherein their trappings can be shed. All, ironically, except Laing’s. He clings onto that suit and grey tie till the end.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Zootropolis


Whereas Pixar’s ‘The Good Dinosaur’ starts with a fantastic concept – the comet that should have rendered the dinosaurs extinct misses the earth and dinosaurs gradually evolve to develop the power of speech, cognizance of the family unit, and a facility for agricultural self-sustainability – then proceeds to do absolutely sod all with it, Disney’s ‘Zootropolis’ establishes its anthropomorphised civilisation so rigorously in terms of backstory, geography and inventive world-building that its breathless first act is liable to leave you dizzy. 

Basically: we’re in a world where animals talk and have created a recognisably contemporary society based on trade, upward mobility and lifestyle aspirations; a world where predators and prey co-exist peacefully if suspiciously. The lion might not be lying down with the lamb, but it’s odds-on they work in the same office building. In fact, there’s a lion in City Hall – Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons) – and he’s ably, if nervously, assisted by a sheep, Deputy Mayor Bellwether (Jenny Slate).

It’s thanks to Lionheart’s Mammal Inclusion Programme that naïve but fiercely determined rabbit Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is able to join the Zootropolis Police Department, albeit in the face of cynicism and prejudice. Not that Hopps, for all her talk of inclusiveness, isn’t just a little species-ist herself, particularly when it comes to foxes. It doesn’t help that, first day on the force, she’s played for a sucker by vulpine con artist Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). The Mammal Inclusion Programme is a curious wrong note in a script that’s otherwise whipsmart: every animal in the ZPD – indeed, every animal in Zootropolis itself (unless I missed some bird life or reptiles) – is a mammal.

This flub notwithstanding, ‘Zootropolis’ plays its cards perfectly as it settles down from its plot-free but exhaustively immersive transitioning of Hopp from her hick small town roots to the bustling capital city by way of a gruelling training montage at animal police academy, quickly becoming a follow-the-clues procedural Hopp, royally pissing off Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), is given the traditional 48 hours to solve a missing persons case, with the caveat of an unceremonious ejection from the force should she fail. When her first clue brings her back into Wilde’s orbit, she loses no time in turning the tables on him … and this is where the film really starts to get interesting.

Let me reiterate that ‘Zootropolis’ is a Disney film. Its first act is imbued with the kind of gently improving moral messages – everyone’s equal; never give up on your dreams – that you’d expect from the studio. And yet even these themes are tempered by jolts of reality. Hopp’s liberalism is challenged from the outset after an assault by a delinquent fox, while her dreams of making it as a police officer in the big city are oh-so-gently chiselled away at by her ultimately well-meaning parents. “It’s okay to have dreams as long as you don’t believe in them too much,” Hopp’s mother counsels at one point, one of several slaps in the face that ‘Zootropolis’ delivers to traditional Disney aesthetics.

So: Disney but not quite Disney, yeah? Disney with a bit of the stuffing knocked out of it after a backstreet scuffle. Now factor in these narrative developments: (a) having successfully beaten Wilde at his own game (“it’s called a hustle, sweetheart”), Hopp demonstrates no qualms in blackmailing him in order continue her investigation; and (b) with Hopp so new to the ZPD (not to mention unpopular enough with Bogo) that she’s effectively operating without resources, the rule book goes out of the window from the outset; indeed, by the time she encounters Mr Big (Maurice Lamarche), in a scene that’s gratuitously accurate in its lampooning of ‘The Godfather’, the rule book doesn’t just go out the window but straight into the sewer.

Between stoner witnesses, unreliable witnesses and witnesses who get the frighteners put on them in a favour Hopp accepts from Mr Big, our intrepid lupine heroine puts together a case that Rumpole of the Bailey would get thrown out of court with one withering turn of phrase; but this is Zootropolis and her efforts are rewarded … but elevation to the media’s poster bunny for law enforcement comes at a price: fear spreads through the city, old prejudices come to the fore, and Hopp’s nascent friendship with Wilde is severely tested.

‘Zootropolis’ constructs its slow-burn crime thriller narrative from meditations on racism, media manipulation, moral compromise, and the politics of fear. It references not only ‘The Godfather’ but ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’. The overriding theme is that the pursuit of one’s dreams will necessarily entail messy mistakes and some degree of failure. And that animals of different species (i.e. people of different races/cultures) will more often than not treat each other shittily.

This is a Disney film, folks. A Disney film that’s finally decided to quit sugar-coating it.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Hail, Caesar!


I was toying with the idea of structuring this review around my reading of ‘Hail, Caesar’ as ‘Barton Fink’ meets the gospels, but that would involve identifying Judas’s stand in and therein lies a major spoiler. Let’s just say that an oft-referenced but never seen studio boss is the Coen Brothers’ absent God, Scarlett Johannsen is the Virgin Mary and studio “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is Everyman and the film itself a chronicle of his long dark night of the soul.

Or you could possibly make a case for Mannix as Jesus, particularly in terms of his temptation, but I prefer the idea of naïve cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Aiden Ehrenrecih) as Christ, which would seem to work in context of his deliverance of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) – a man who falls among, if not thieves, then writers … and communist writers, to boot.

Either way, the film starts with an image of Christ on the cross and ends with a purposefully hackneyed pan up to the firmament, so we’re definitely in religious territory. Mannix has his most soulful conversations in a confessional, and grabs prayer beads and silently implores the Almighty for guidance at his moment of greatest uncertainty. Granted, outside of his faith he happily slaps around anyone whose peccadilloes might bring the studio into disrepute, complicitly pays off kidnappers and deals with rival sibling gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton) with the aplomb of Machiavelli, but at heart he’s still Everyman, his path is a difficult one and his decisions don’t come easily.

Religion has always bubbled away in the background in the Coens’ filmography, be it John Goodman’s pseudo-Satan and the corridors of a fleapit hotel as an entryway to hell in ‘Barton Fink’, or the mass baptism in ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’, but it wasn’t until ‘A Simple Man’ that the theological truly shouldered its way to the forefront. ‘Hail, Caesar’ offers a scene of four religious spokesmen trading ecumenical verbal bitch-slappings that manages to say more about religion than ‘A Simple Man’ does in its entire running time. 

Or I could be misconstruing things entirely and ‘Hail, Caesar’ is nothing more than an excuse for Joel and Ethan to restage some of their favourite scenes and genre tropes from the golden age of Hollywood. God knows, they certainly stuff enough of their own back catalogue into the blender. The obvious points of reference are ‘Barton Fink’ and ‘The Big Lebowski’: such narrative as ‘Hail, Caesar’ scrapes together (the film happily introduces all manner of characters, situations, subplots and symbolism only to completely forget them again) is basically a conflation of those two earlier films. But plenty of other moments from the Coen back catalogue are included.

It would, in fact, be very easy to write off ‘Hail, Caesar’ as the Coens doing sloppy, second-rate Coen copyism, but that misses out on how entertaining the whole big stupid shaggy dog story is. How entertaining and how intelligent. Weaving McCarthyism, socio-political debate, economics, faith, doubt, moral elasticity and spiritual angst into the fabric of its (un)reality, the Coens’ script is an exercise in Big Concepts played out against a deliberately superficial backdrop. Oh, and it’s laugh out loud funny for a good 80% of its running time.

A plot synopsis would be a self-defeating exercise, so I’m not going there. Analysis of individual performances? All over the place, from Clooney being spectacularly in on the joke and owning every scene he’s in, to Brolin effectively anchoring the film without actually doing anything he hasn’t done a dozen times already, to Jonah Hill in a cameo that proves that once you’ve worked for Scorsese you can blag your way into any prestige production, to complete unknown Ehrenreich basically writing himself a cheque for his entire Hollywood career in one magnificently conceptualised performance. An extended scene where Ehrenreich’s total rube and Ralph Fiennes’s snootily sophisticated director play off each other is pure delight on a level the Coens haven’t delivered in a good few years.

It’s a profoundly deep film and utterly throwaway at one and the same time. It’s about a lot of things and adds up to something slightly less than sweet fuck all. There’s a scene of the communist writers at rest, two of them demurely completing a jigsaw together, only the last piece doesn’t fit. That’s the whole film, right there.